Friday 26 June 2009

All Wales Convention

As Betsan has already blogged, yesterday evening saw the final event in the grand tour by the All-Wales Convention. It wasn't all they did yesterday, however - earlier in the day, they were taking oral evidence from bodies and individuals, and Plaid's Chief Executive, Gwenllïan Lansdown, and I were there to give evidence formally on behalf of Plaid.

No surprise to anyone, I'm sure, that our view was that there should be maximum devolution of powers to Wales in the shortest possible timetable; and that the referendum on implementing Part 4 of the Government of Wales Act should be held within the timetable agreed by ourselves and the Labour Party, and set out in the One Wales agreement. What other position would anyone expect Plaid to adopt?

The line of questioning was interesting, but it's hard to know whether Sir Emyr, in particular, was revealing his own attitude in asking questions, or merely playing devil's advocate. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume the latter, which means that it's hard to read any hint about the probable outcome of their deliberations from the line of questioning.

The points raised with us about how we enthuse people in Wales to vote for what is in a sense a technical change - a matter of 'when not what' - were entirely valid, and they are issues which those of us who want to see a referendum held, with a successful answer, will need to consider. I'm not entirely convinced that they're relevant factors for the Convention to be worrying about; but that doesn't detract from their seriousness and relevance to the wider debate.

All too often, people are referring to a Scottish-style Parliament - but that, of course, is not what is on offer. I firmly believe that it would be a much easier proposition to sell than the content of GOWA 2006, largely because it's so much clearer. But if the problem in selling the next step is a direct result of the lack of clarity over the difference between where we are and where we would be after implementing Part 4, then what is the mechanism which ends that lack of clarity?

I have to admit that I don't see one; to argue that it will take more time for people to understand the issue (which seems to be the position of some who want to delay holding a referendum) leaves me cold. I don't think any amount of time is going to enthuse people about a largely technical change - the only thing more time will do is to continue to highlight the problems of the current system. There is a real danger that using the difficulty of getting people to understand and vote for change on the basis of lack of understanding becomes a permanent cop-out.

We got into an interesting debate with Sir Emyr about seatbelts on school buses at one point. We mentioned it as an example of the Assembly Government wanting to act but being unable to do so under the current settlement. He asked why they needed to legislate; why couldn't they just impose the change through the contracts individual councils have with the bus companies. It's an entirely valid point about the style of government – should governments always seek to resolve matters through legislation or should they look at other approaches? Entirely valid at a philosophical level; but surely irrelevant to the debate about where the power should lie?

Our final parting shot was a very simple, but I think very important, message. The Commission has done a great deal of detailed work and analysis. That will be reflected in their report when they conclude their work. That report will be an input - a very important input – into the final decision as to whether and when to hold a referendum. But the decision on that issue will be taken by politicians, not by the Convention's members. The One Wales Government has appointed the Convention's members to do a job of work and return with some considered advice; it has not abdicated its responsibility to them.

When it comes to commissioning and considering reports, governments can't win. If they do whatever their appointees advise, they can be accused of hiding behind others; and if they ignore reports, they can be accused of wasting time and money on an unnecessary exercise. I think it's more subtle than that. Good government uses all sorts of tools and methods to obtain views, to make assessments, and to provide advice. But good government also means that the final decision rests with elected representatives, who take their decisions having heard all the advice and considered the implications.

Finally, lest anyone jump to the conclusion that I am expecting a negative result from the Convention and seeking to justify over-ruling it in advance, let me add that this works both ways. If the Convention recommends an early referendum, the politicians have the right to decide otherwise, just as they have the right to decide to go forward if the Convention recommends no progress.

Monday 22 June 2009

Quitting the day job

Tory MPs are rushing to quit their lucrative day jobs before 1st July, when they will have to publicly declare their earnings. Apparently as many as 40 of Cameron's top team have other jobs as well as being MPs, and there is some concern that they may find themselves embarrassed when the details emerge.

Interestingly, it seems that about 10 of these people hold directorships of hedge funds. It's been public knowledge for some time that the Tory Party has been benefiting from the activities of these funds, but I hadn't realised that so many of their MPs were active participants as well. It's no great surprise that none of these MPs were particularly keen to discuss their roles.

Whilst there is scope for debate as to how far the activities of hedge funds caused – rather then merely benefited from – the collapse of the banking system, there is no doubt in my mind that short-selling financial stocks on a large scale was a contributory factor.

I don't know which MPs held these directorships or with which hedge funds; perhaps that will become clearer over the next two weeks. But there is surely something very wrong when an opposition party can benefit financially from the collapse of the financial system – and it's even worse if some of them may have had a direct involvement in causing it.

I'd like to think that any members of Cameron's top team who are found to have been involved in short-selling shares in British banks would rapidly find themselves as ex-members of the team – but I'm not holding my breath.

Thursday 18 June 2009

Those who can afford it

I was slightly surprised that the Tories have decided to make the re-imposition of prescription charges in Wales one of their key planks of their Assembly policy. Even some of their own people seem to have been a bit taken aback by the proposal.

It's not entirely clear how much money this will really save. The cost of abolishing prescription charges was put at around £30 million, but the Tories' proposal wouldn't raise that much in reality. In the first place, they are planning to increase the range of exemptions, and in the second, to impose a lower charge – both aspects which would significantly impact on the total of any saving. And that's without deducting the costs of reintroducing the systems to collect and account for the monies involved.

I doubt, however, that they're really interested in the saving; this is more to do with their political message than with financial prudence. After all, much of what they actually say in the Assembly seems to be about demanding increasing expenditure rather than cuts.

The line about "those who can afford to pay should do so" has a certain resonance, there's no doubt about that. And given that around 93% of prescriptions were free anyway, and that that proportion would increase under the Tory proposals, it seems that less than 7% of the population would be affected adversely by their proposal. (Although since that's likely to be the wealthiest 7%, one does rather wonder whether this is likely to affect the section of the population most likely, historically, to vote Tory.)

But, as I've argued before, if the principle to be followed is that "those who can afford to pay should", why pick on (or stop at) prescription charges? Why not fees to see the GP? Charges for hospital treatment?

I can understand them wanting to draw a clear line between themselves and the Assembly government. And at a policy level, there's a refreshing honesty about them returning to their traditional position of attacking both universality and the health service. But what's their game plan for 2011? Do they really believe that they and the Lib Dems will ever have the numbers to form an alternative government in Cardiff?

Tuesday 16 June 2009

Define 'listening'

In his interview in today's Western Mail, Peter Hain again states that he doesn't see a referendum happening in the timescales set out in One Wales. Nothing new there – he's been saying the same thing for some months.

What is slightly different though is his claim that failing to hold the referendum will cause no problems for the One Wales coalition partners. I found his phrase, "Talking to Plaid Cymru members at a very senior level there is an understanding of that" particularly interesting.

Now, it's not entirely unknown for me to "talk to Plaid members at a very senior level" from time to time. The consistent message given to me and the various bodies within the party is that we are all expecting the referendum to be held within the agreed timescale. Of course, no-one wants to hold a referendum and lose; but there is absolutely no indication that that would happen, and every indication that some in the Labour Party want to renege on the commitment for their own narrow party purposes rather than because of any real danger of defeat.

I'm not sure what Hain's game is. I do not believe that any of the party's leaders would say one thing to myself and the rest of the party whilst saying the opposite to Peter Hain, so I simply cannot believe what he is saying today.

He could of course be deliberately trying to give Plaid members the impression that the leadership is about to backtrack. Devious and underhand; but that just makes it a more credible explanation for his comments. He needs, however, to understand that Plaid's membership has rather more faith in its leadership than Labour Party members do in theirs. Such a tactic will just not work.

He could be trying to reassure his own side by repeating the mantra that there will be no referendum and assuring them that they can scrap the referendum with impunity. A decision not to hold a referendum might well please many in his own party; but to argue that there would, by so doing, be no breach of faith with Plaid as Labour's One Wales partners would be to seriously underestimate the damage he would be doing in terms of faith and trust.

I suspect that his statement is in large part down to the fact that he just doesn't listen to what people are actually saying to him. It fits with much of the rest of the interview, in which he talks about Labour's leadership needing to listen to the grassroots, and the Labour Party as a whole needing to listen to the electorate. The only lesson he seems to admit that Labour need to learn is "to change how we campaign". Typical New Labour – it's all about presentation, and nothing to do with the underlying policy direction of the government and party.

And his attempt to 'listen to people' and 'learn the lessons' last week seemed to boil down to little more than rebuking people for not voting Labour, and threatening them with consequences if they do the same again next time.

Perhaps the comment will do something to reassure some in his own party; but as a statement of Plaid's position it is just plain wrong.

Monday 15 June 2009

Missing the point

When Tory MP Derek Conway was caught out paying large sums of taxpayers' cash to his sons, the real scandal for me was not simply that they were his sons, but that they appeared to have done very little to earn the money which they were paid.

I can understand why people might think that there is something inherently wrong with the idea that elected members should employ their relatives, and the news that one in four of Wales' AMs employs a relative sounds intuitively to be a high proportion. But provided that the people are selected on merit, and there is some sort of control that they actually earn what they are paid, I'm not convinced that the practice is necessarily and universally wrong.

In any other walk of life, would being related to the boss automatically disqualify someone from doing a job? I don't think it would, or should. And which is the bigger scandal – appointing a relative who does the job thoroughly and professionally, or appointing someone unrelated who does very little?

Merely prohibiting our elected politicians from employing their relatives misses the point, I fear. The real loopholes that need to be plugged are the method of appointment and the lack of any objective assessment of whether their employees are actually earning what they get paid.

Friday 12 June 2009

How proportional is my vote?

I'm not sure how committed Gordon Brown is to real electoral reform, but I suspect that it's just another piece of spin rather than a serious intention for reform. The only thing he's actually said to date is that he wants a debate around the subject, and that the system should only be changed if there's a real consensus. There is a danger that it is seen as clutching at straws, given the prospect of the Labour Party disappearing into the wilderness for some considerable time.

Nevertheless, I welcome the fact that he's at least prepared to see a debate on the subject. But how should we respond?

I'm clear from the outset that I (and Plaid) prefer the STV system, with multi-member constituencies, as being the one which gives the most representative membership of any elected body. It seems however that Gordon Brown is seeking to limit the discussion to 'AV - yes or no?'.

There's a good article by Owain Llŷr of the Electoral Reform Society in yesterday's Western Mail on the issue. He's right to identify the fact that whilst AV means that fewer constituencies are 'safe' for one party or another, it does not produce a much more representative parliament, and still leaves a significant number of constituencies where there is no real contest.

Those are sound reasons for rejecting AV; but I'm not convinced at this stage that we should take such a simplistic response. If we are really to be faced with the possibility of 'AV – take it or leave it', then are we better off taking it or leaving it? It's one of those circumstances where we may well have to choose between holding out for what we think is right, or accepting what's available and treating it as a first step. Principle vs pragmatism?

At this stage, I'll reserve judgement.

Thursday 11 June 2009

Debasing the currency

When words are over-used and mis-used in politics in order to either insult opponents or attempt to blacken them by associating them with certain ideas or actions, it ends up debasing the words themselves. The result is that the words become less powerful when they are really needed and relevant.

Two examples which immediately spring to mind are 'fascist' and 'racist'. Far too many have used the term 'Fascist' as little more than a term of abuse for anyone with right wing views. I'll admit to not having been able to find an entirely satisfactory definition of the term itself, although it's derived from the Italian word which Mussolini and his supporters used to describe what passed for their political philosophy, of course.

Were the Nazis also fascists? They may have shared a certain amount of their political philosophy, but I'm not convinced that 'National Socialism' and 'Fascism' are truly the same thing. And merely having been 'on the same side' in a war doesn’t make them the same thing. There's a danger of over-simplification of history.

Plaid have suffered for many years from the attempt of some in the Labour Party to associate the term with our party. Some of them seem to have spent an inordinate amount of time trying to 'prove' some sort of link between Saunders Lewis and other early Plaid figures on the one hand and Nazi Germany on the other, as though that somehow, even if it were true, can honestly be used to taint Plaid Cymru today.

(Not all Labour people take the same line on this issue, however; I don't want to fall into the same trap of tarring everyone with the same brush. I particularly liked this analysis by Adam Higgitt).

Racist is another word which has been used as a term of political abuse - and again, sadly, there have been people in the Labour Party keen to hurl the term at Plaid, usually when it comes to issues connected with the Welsh language.

The objective of this approach to politics is to use negative labels as a substitute for debate, when we should really be debating the substance.

The problem is that this abuse of the words has debased the currency of the language of politics to such an extent that the accusation can be all too easily ignored. The election of two MEPs from the BNP to represent these islands in the EU highlights the need, surely, for more precision in the use of language in politics, and for moving away from simply hurling labels at each other.

I note already that some have taken to referring to the BNP on every occasion as fascists and racists, and I have a concern that some of this is, again, more to do with labelling and insult than hard political fact. I'm not sure whether or not they are fascists. I don't think that they have any thought through ideology at all; and I'm not convinced that being an apologist for some of the horrendous actions of the Nazis is enough to justify the use of the term.

Racists, anti-Semitists, and holocaust-deniers, however, they undoubtedly are, as their own statements on a number of occasions clearly demonstrate.

Their arguments are dangerous and need to be countered. But they need to be countered by reasoned argument and persuasion of the electors who have been or are likely to be attracted into voting for them. Using words as terms of abuse hasn't worked to date, and it's unlikely to work in future.

Wednesday 10 June 2009

Vote Labour, get Tory

Following on from my previous post about the European results in this constituency, perhaps I should issue a stark warning to Labour voters that, if they vote for the Labour Party, they will end up with a Tory MP. It's as sensible - or as silly, depending on perspective - as Peter Hain's fatuous message to the effect that if anyone dares to vote for anything other than Labour, then they will end up with a Tory government.

Hain's words are wrong, and on so many levels.

Firstly, there is an assumption that anyone who isn't a particular fan of the Conservatives would necessarily and automatically prefer the Labour Party, regardless of the performance, policies, and personalities of that party.

Secondly, it depends on persuading people to vote against something rather than for anything - a sad reflection on what Labour has become, but unfortunately not an attitude which is unique to Hain.

Thirdly, it overlooks the fact that some people might actually want to support a party other than Labour – some of them might even have made a positive choice to support the Tories.

And fourthly, there's almost a degree of arrogance underlying the statement – and this goes to the heart of where Labour is going so badly wrong in Wales. Labour need to learn that they don't have an eternal right to the support of the people of Wales; they have to earn it, and keep earning it at future elections. For too long, they've simply taken Wales for granted in electoral terms.

We currently have a Labour government which was elected with the support of around 35% of those who voted. All the indications are that we will shortly have a Conservative government, also likely to be elected with around 35 – 36% of the vote.

Rather then trying to scare, hector, or bully those who voted for neither of those parties into voting for one of them in order to stop the other, a far more sensible way forward would be the introduction of PR. Encouraging a system where people's second choices could also count would be a far more constructive approach to politics than trying to scare them into voting for other than their first choice.

It would be more honest as well. And who knows – it might even benefit the Labour Party. And it's starting to look as if Brown, at least, might understand that.

Tuesday 9 June 2009

An objective assessment?

According to all the headlines, Gordon Brown lives to fight another day following last night's meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Given the way that the meeting has been reported, I'm not so sure that his neck is as safe as suggested.

The assessment seems to have been based largely on the fact that the majority of the 30 or so people who expressed an opinion supported him, with the implicit assumption that if the majority of those who spoke backed him, then he enjoys the support of his party. Given that at least one of those who was present then ran to the media and gave them the story about who had spoken and what they said, I somehow doubt that his troubles are over.

I can fully understand why, faced with a difficult situation, the party avoided holding a vote on the issue. Any party manager would understand that holding any sort of vote of confidence in the leadership actually adds to the impression that things are bad, even if the result is overwhelming support. But not having any objective assessment inevitably leaves an open question over the true level of his support.

With some, at least, of his own party members apparently determined to work against him in a semi-public fashion, and no obvious financial upturn on the immediate horizon, I question whether it is really in the interest of anyone except the Tories for him to limp along for another year.

Monday 8 June 2009

Winners and losers

I would, of course, have liked to have done better than this in the constituency in last night's count; but it wasn't a bad result for us. Could have been better, though!

If I were a Lib Dem, I'd have added a banner headline saying "Can't Win Here!", with arrows pointing to the third, fourth, fifth parties... But I'm not, so I haven't.

There are lots of reasons for being careful about extrapolating results in one set of elections forward into a different election, not the least of which is the fact that the turnout was less than half of what I'd expect in a parliamentary contest. It's also the case that in any election where there is an element of 'proportionality' in the voting system, people can feel freer to vote for their real first choice, and there also tends to be a wider range of choice than in a Westminster election.

But even with all those caveats, would I prefer to be going into the next election with Plaid having come a very clear second rather than third in the immediately preceding contest? Of course – which candidate wouldn’t? I'd have preferred first place, mind…

There are problems also with interpreting the results across Wales as a whole, for the same reasons. Not so long ago, the idea that the Tories could finish in first place in terms of the popular vote in Wales would be unthinkable. It hasn't happened since the introduction of universal suffrage in the nineteenth century. And no party other than Labour has finished in first place in Wales since the khaki election of 1918, when Wales supported Lloyd George's Liberal Party.

The margin was very small, of course - indeed, less than 3% of the vote separated the first three parties. Nevertheless, there is a psychological impact from Labour having been beaten into second place, and from Plaid having come so close to Labour as well. Knowing that Labour can be beaten, in the right election and at the right time, will spur both the other major parties in Wales to greater efforts over the remaining time of the current parliament - and both have a more credible narrative about their potential for success.

Will the result be repeated in that coming election? I find that hard to judge. Neither Plaid nor the Tories made any great advance in terms of share of the vote – Tories up 1%, Plaid up 2%. The big story was how far the Labour vote fell (down 12%) – and where it went. Clearly, some Labour voters switched to other parties. (Including, sadly, both UKIP and the BNP. All parties need to be careful about taking it for granted that their supporters all share all of their core values.) However, I suspect that a lot also simply stayed at home – too disillusioned and fed up with their usual party to make any effort to go out and vote for them, but not yet ready to switch to an alternative.

The big question is what that group will do in the Westminster election – and I don't think any of us know the answer to that as yet. From our own door-knocking activities, I don't see any signs that the level of disillusion with Labour is limited to just the one set of elections; but that could change as a General Election approaches.

My own suspicion is that Wales is moving from an era of Labour hegemony into a short period of three-party politics, from which will emerge a different long term pattern. Personally, I don't believe that Wales' flirtation with the Tories would last very long if there was actually a Tory government in London. No surprise then that I think Plaid will turn out to be the real long-term beneficiary from yesterday's defeat of Labour in Wales.

Thursday 4 June 2009

Could they? Would they?

David Davies is an outspoken MP, who says what he thinks regardless of whether it's what he's supposed to be saying. In that context, it can be a mistake to vest too much credence in his utterances.

Having said that, his views on Wales and the National Assembly are very much a reflection of the views of the ordinary members of the Conservatives in Wales - much more so than the statements that issue from some of the Tory AMs.

So when he says that he supports the idea that London should take back the Assembly's powers over higher education and over 'aspects' of the NHS, there are probably many members of his party all across Wales cheering him on. Coupled with the willingness of the Tories' spokesperson on Wales to raise the issue in the first place, it's an indicator as to which way the wind is blowing inside that party.

Whilst I find it entirely credible that Gillan would not have considered it necessary to consult, or even inform, her party's leader in the Assembly, I am much less sure that she would start to float that idea without discussing with at least some of her shadow cabinet colleagues – and possibly even the boss.

It seems almost inevitable now that there will be a Tory government in the UK after the next election. That government is likely to have a massive mandate from England, whilst being resoundingly rejected in Wales. For all their talking up of their chances, they're unlikely to win more than around half a dozen seats in Wales, out of the 40 available.

In terms of the UK constitution, unwritten as it is, there is no problem if a government with a clear mandate at UK level seeks to impose its will on a Wales where it has no mandate. However, the establishment of the Assembly in 1999 changed the context, if not the rules. It would be a foolish government that tried it.

Wednesday 3 June 2009

Did she or didn't she?

I don't know for certain whether Cheryl Gillan did, or did not, float the idea of undevolving higher education from the Assembly. The truth will out in time, I'm sure; but whether it's true or not, there is a general acceptance that the story is entirely credible.

The Tories' membership, leadership, and MPs are overwhelmingly opposed to the very existence of the National Assembly. A minority of their AMs (and one honourable exception amongst their parliamentary candidates) take a different view, but they are unlikely to even be consulted – let alone have any real influence – on the policies pursued by their party should they win the general election.

The Tories' plans to reduce the number of MPs by 10% as well as harmonising the size of constituencies will reduce the number of MPs in Wales from 40 to 30. It will also reduce the size of the National Assembly from 60 to 45 members, as a commenter on a previous post pointed out, because of the statutory relationship between the numbers of AMs and MPs. (Unless, of course, they are planning new primary legislation on the nature of the National Assembly. I doubt that they've actually thought that through.)

Given that many believe that the current membership of 60 is inadequate for the task, the logic of reducing the scope of the Assembly's authority to match its slimmed down membership is inescapable - which only adds to the credibility of the idea that they will be seeking to undevolve some powers.

Tuesday 2 June 2009

Cars, trains, and buses

Saturday's Western Mail managed to fill almost the whole of a double-page spread with a story about AMs telling the rest of us to use public transport whilst very few of them do the same thing.

It's based on an analysis of travelling expenses claimed by AMs, and assumes that if they haven't claimed it, then they can't have spent it. Given the current attention being given to those MPs who go out of their way to claim every last penny to which they believe that they are entitled, this is a natural assumption to make; but that doesn't mean it's correct. It may well be that AMs who take only short distances are actually making more use of public transport than at first sight appears, and just not bothering to claim it back.

However, the first thing that struck me is that the reasons stated for not using public transport are, in fact, remarkably similar to those of the rest of the population; in this context, at least, AMs are nothing special. Convenience, journey time, reliability, timetable problems particularly outside peak hours – all of these things contribute to the decision to use, or not to use - public transport.

Interestingly none of them mentioned cost; but for many people, that's one of the key issues in making the decision, even if it's not the one that they own up to. There is often a real financial advantage for the individual to drive rather than take the train, even if driving is more expensive.

Take an employee – of any organisation - who is travelling on business from Carmarthen to Cardiff, for instance. Train fare, £15.10; petrol cost 150 miles @ say 10 miles to the litre = c £15. Case 1, claim £15.10 on expenses; case 2 claim 150 miles @ 40p per mile = £60 on expenses. It doesn't take a genius to work out why many employees will choose to drive, citing the lower journey time as the justification.

We all know what we should be doing if we're serious about emissions from transport; and most of us fail a lot of the time. But if those urging us to make changes to the way we travel aren't doing so themselves, it surely serves only to underline the fact that 'urging' will never be enough by itself.

I think that the logic of that is pretty clear - but what to do about it? There are some changes that can be made which are pretty non-controversial. Alleviating bottlenecks on the rail system where there are only single-track stretches is an obvious one. Providing extra capacity, in terms of longer trains or more frequent trains is another.

Other changes are much harder to gain consensus around. Increasing the cost differential between public and private transport would help. It's likely to be popular if it's achieved by reducing the cost of public transport (until people see the effect on taxes at any rate!); but increasing the cost of private transport doesn't sound like an immediate vote-winner to me. There's always 'compulsion' or 'prohibition'; but I'm sure that Sir Humphrey would rapidly tell any minister minded to follow that route that it would be a very 'brave' decision.

Ultimately, however, if we are really serious about getting to grips with the issue of the contribution made by transport to carbon emissions, what are the alternatives? Politicians urging people to do one thing whilst themselves doing the other is clearly the wrong sort of leadership – but are people ready for the right sort?